Archive for the Crooked Mirror Category

A psycho-geographic walk in Warsaw

Posted in Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, Life and What about It, Poland, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2017 by Louise Steinman

The last days of August I spent in Warsaw, holding animated conversations with my Polish friends about the abounding dangers in their country and my own. On my second morning in town, my friend Wojtek Szaszor a conceptual artist, offered me an unusual gift, a Warsaw map with circles drawn around locales he considered “symbolic chakra-Monuments” of Warsaw.  It was an invitation for what Wojtek calls “a free association- self-guided psycho-geographic tour in the spirit of John Cage,” all within walking distance of his Powisle neighborhood.

Wojtek uses conversations and dialogue as part of his art practice (in the arts district in LA, in the mid-90’s, he was an organizer of the alternative space on Traction Avenue called Spanish Kitchen), and until a few months ago, with his wife—artist and theater producer extraordinaire Joanna Klass, they ran an an “experimental incubator of art” called Curie City in central Warsaw near the Palace of Culture A storefront with theater artists creating new work alarmed the conservative Polish government. Curie City got hassled out of their lease.

What were the criteria for inclusion on this tour? Wojtek suggests that, in these present troubled circumstances, it could be helpful  to “assemble a team” composed of the living and the dead, those who are, he says, the true non-conformists and have some kind of knowledge of what is happening. Very few people in Poland, he added, are true nonconformists. I asked if he would join me on this walk but no, he said, his presence would spoil it.

My first stop was just a few blocks from my apartment, on the banks of the Vistula. The sun was bright and children were soaking up the last days of summer, splashing themselves in the fountain at the base of the Syrene of Warsaw, the mythical symbol of that grand city’s defiance, who rears up on bronze waves on her Piscene tail, holding her sword aloft.  A mermaid as a symbol of a city? I thought about the value of hybrids, what it means to be part human and animal, how hybrid forms are for non-conformists, for breaking norms that we’ve outgrown. And most of all, the siren must be heard.

The statue was unveiled in July, 1939, just a month before the German invasion of Poland. The statue survived the war, but the young poet on whose visage the sculptor, Ludwika Nitschowa, modeled the Syrene, did not. Her unblinking gaze belongs to the young poet and ethnographer, Krystyna Krahelska, who died on the second day of the Warsaw Uprising. Krahelska fought for the AK, the Polish Resistance, under the code name Danuta. She was nursing a wounded AK soldier when she was shot three times by a German sniper.

Her face was pure and idealistic, the face of a woman who would do what she needed to do for her country. It made me think of my young grandmother, who took refuge in Warsaw in 1920, two young children in tow, on her solo journey from Russia during its civil war. She secured her visa to come to the States at the Belgian legation in Warsaw, part of my own mythology. (I have not yet found the Belgian legation in Warsaw) . She did what she felt she must do to get her family to safety. She took risks. And so did Krystyna Krahelska.

I consulted the map for my next site, some commemoration of a woman named Eliza Orzeszkowa, located in a park crisscrossed with paths and lush pines. I needed practice navigating by street map. Where was she? There was the spring house that Wojtek had mentioned, where generations of Warsovians have filled their bottles from a natural spring. And there was the duck pond with some  mallards paddling around; I saw no plaque, no statue.  I sat down on a bench to ponder, to be still. It was a relief not to speak; Wojtek was so right to send me solo.  It took some minutes then I glanced over my shoulder at a noise– Eliza Orzeskowa, obscured by bushes, was staring right at me. Orzeszkowa, I learned, was a 19th century reformer and a prolific novelist who wrote about social conditions and campaigned for social reform in partitioned Poland, fought for the rights of women, espoused tolerance for Jews, and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1905. Russian authorities placed her under police surveillance for five years. Her solidity reassured me. I got out my pencils to draw her.

The Marie Curie Museum, on Freta Street in New Town, is in the townhouse where Maria Sklodowska was born. I observed flasks and beakers from her childhood lab, photos of Marie with Pierre Curie on their bicycle honeymoon, her spectacles in a glass case.

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It is always worth meditating on Marie Curie– her daring, her intellect, her dedication and imagination, her resilience in surmounting the many tragedies life handed her. As a young woman in Warsaw, she defied the Czar and attended the Flying University, where classes were in Polish. She allowed herself to imagine the freedom, as a woman, to study at the Sorbonne. She coined the term “radioactivity.” As chronicled in the beautiful Lauren Redness graphic novel about Marie, titled  Radioactive: “…in the lab she learned to counterbalance the unknown with the known.” She and Pierre attended séances, they were fascinated by all attempts to “coax the unseen into plain view.” She invented specially outfitted X-ray wagons and drove them herself to treated wounded French soldiers, pioneering new medical treatment on the battlefield.  Her discoveries—of radium, polonium (named for her native country) earned her two Nobel Prizes and were, she hoped, to be used for the common good.  Full stop.
Oh long-lost sisters, oh Vistula siren,
Oh Risk-taking Spirits, oh free radicals
Please guide us, hybrid as we may be

as we find our way

to resist
to exist
in these perilous times.

…and, since Wojtek invoked John Cage, I took the long way home, walking slowly along the Vistula, pausing for awhile under the Slasko-Dabrowski Bridge to listen to the songs the trams made as they clattered by overhead.

Quite beautiful songs, each one unique.

Elegantly Wrapped Dung: Or, a Polish Journalist’s Posthumous Victory

Posted in Crooked Mirror, Human Rights, Poland with tags , , , , , on October 5, 2016 by Louise Steinman

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A few weeks ago, I received an email message from one Ronan Ó Fathaigh, a researcher for the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg. This euphoniously named gentleman wrote to tactfully inquire if the late Maciej Ziembinski, whom I’d written about on my Crooked Mirror blog, had been the plaintiff in a case he was writing up for the Court: ZIEMBIŃSKI v. Poland (No. 2). READ MORE on the LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS BLOG

Maciej Ziembinski, Radomsko, Poland

Maciej Ziembinski, Radomsko, Poland

 

 

Among the Righteous, on the passing of Marian Bereska

Posted in Crooked Mirror, Human Rights, Life and What about It, Poland, refugee crisis with tags , , , , , on December 31, 2015 by Louise Steinman

IMG_6326I can’t let 2015 fade into the night without making mention of a remarkable man who passed away in a little town in central Poland on December 20, the day before the winter solstice.

I had the privilege of meeting Marian Bereska first in 2009, when he finally was willing to tell his story of how he and is mother Janina together hid five Jews from the Radomsko ghetto in their little house.

(Below: Janina Bereska with young Marian)

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For seventy years, he’d kept this story to himself. He hadn’t told his wife, his children, or any of his neighbors or friends in the town where he’d lived his entire life. In the postwar years, under Communism, secrecy about the past had become a habit. For a while it appeared that Marian Bereska would carry his secret to the grave.

IMG_6327 I will always remember that remarkable winter day in an empty hotel dining room in Radomsko, with snow falling outside the windows– when Marian met with me, his grandson Szymon (who helped persuade his grandfather that it was safe now to tell his story), my journalist friend Maciej Ziembinski, and my translator Tomasz Cebulski, to tell us his story, even sketching out the dimensions of the bunker in my little black notebook—the trapdoor in the kitchen, the second door to the potato cellar. His mother Janina was a young widow with young children (Marian was eight). They hid five people—Berek Ofman, his schoolmate Regina Epstein, her parents, and her cousin– in their bunker for two years. Young Marian procured food for the hidden guests, trading linens for bread. They came close to disaster more than once. In occupied Poland, the Nazi’s penalty for anyone found hiding Jews was death for the entire family.

where he ran Marian

When I asked Marian why he and his mother had assumed the brutal risks of harboring fugitives during the German occupation, he brushed off my query: the question had no meaning. They saw people who needed their help. They responded.

As we move into the New Year, at a time when so many around the globe and in our communities are on the move seeking safety, shelter, sustenance– it’s worth pausing to think about those like Marian and Janina Bereska who said yes to rescuing strangers, even at grave risk to themselves. Rest in peace, Marian.

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photo: Marian Bereska in 2011, Warsaw, with Leo Ofman, son of Berek Ofman, who was rescued with 4 others by Marian and his mother Janina. This was the day of the ceremony in which Marian received the Medal of the Righteous Among the Nations, from Yad Vashem on behalf of his mother and himself.

Notes on a Warsaw Residency, 2

Posted in Crooked Mirror, Life and What about It, Poland, reconciliation, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2015 by Louise Steinman

image Shall I write about the storks clacking their beaks high in their nests on the road to Sejny? And in Krasnogruda, near the border with Lithuania, the hare that bounded across the road and straight out of Milosz’ beautiful poem? In the candle-light coffee-house, Song of Porcelein Cafe, in the basement of what was once Milosz’ childhood summer home, surrounded by Polish listeners from surrounding villages, I speak with my host–Krzysztof Czyzewski– about my “time-based” work, this ten year journey to learn about the actual Poland, our shared history, to “re-imagine” the “Poland in my head.” image Three institutions were just a dream when i began this project– the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews was just an idea among some people in an office; the House of Words in Lublin was just some printing presses in a basement; and the poet Czeslaw Milosz’ childhood estate, Krasnogruda, near the border with Lithunania,was a dilapidated forestry hut in the woods. What dynamic visionary enclaves have sprung from those ideas and on this 2015 trip to Poland, I pay a visit to each one for book talks and conversation. image Now POLIN in Warsaw is a magnificent museum chronicling 1000 years of Jewish history in Poland; Krasnogruda is a magnificent conference center for poets and bridge-builders from around the world; the House of Words in Lublin occupies the whole of that building and thrums with historical necessity and present-day creative energy– master printers, school children, archivists, book binders, paper-makers. Here, local children learn the (almost) lost traditions of their city, in a place where the Nazis murdered the staff of the printing houses, the presses are rolling. The good people of the Grodzka Gate scrutinize old photographs for the clues to the identities of the murdered Jews of their town– to honor them, to restore their names. “This is not an exhibit anymore,” the founder, Tomasz Pietresewicz tells me, “this is a library of lives” and Tomasz and his colleagues are “the reliable workers of memory.” image In Lublin, after my talk, in the Brama Grodzka Cafe, musicians pulled out traditional Polish fiddles, bass and drum, tables were pushed away, shots of Zubrovka appeared and dancers whirled and sang and stamped their feet. There is joy in the room; I can feel it pulsing through my body. image In Sejny, at 5 AM the morning after my talk, too wired to sleep, I walk to the edge of the lake, looking towards Lithuania, and watch the clouds that roil across from Lithuania to Poland, from Poland to Lithuania. Two loons on the water and five flying cranes silhouetted overhead in the dawn light. Tonight, back in Warsaw… I accompany Joanna Klass, my indefatigable Warsaw host, to a small alternative space called XS for an improbable and rigorous discussion/practicum on the subject of LAUGHTER which is, as we all know, beneficial, contagious, and sometimes– even hard work. OK! and onwards to Krakow. image[drawing from POLIN Muzeum confersation by Mariusz Tarkawian]

Notes from a Warsaw Residency, 1

Posted in Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, Family History, Life and What about It, Poland with tags , , , , on April 13, 2015 by Louise Steinman

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some notes from this Warsaw residency (courtesy Adam Mickiewicz Institute, courtesy Warsaw Bauhaus)… the word “resident” from the Latin <em>sidere</em> to abide awhile, to settle down. To settle down on ul. Smulikowskiego, to read and write and move and think in this quiet flat not far from my friends Joanna and Wojtek, to emerge from this quiet flat to walk in the morning, drink coffee in cafes near the university library, to observe the animated conversations of young Warsavians, the changing exhibitions at Warsaw Bauhaus…

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to enter the Warsaw zoo where the sight of flamingos ignites the landscape, where strolling families are exiting after a Saturday looking at zebras… to a special ceremony to dedicate the villa residence of the Zabinskis, the zookeepers who rescued many Jews during the German occupation of Warsaw..

that was two days ago, sitting under chestnut trees listening to Chopin with geese clacking overhead and i swear i heard other creatures (wolves?) adding to the melange of sound and feeling… late afternoon walk on the nearby Vistula, admiring a barge named Atalanta, thinking of the saviors of Atlantis who wandered and collected the shards of Jewish history in Poland after the war, to the present, the vibrant present here in Warsaw today… walking through the doors of the new POLIN Museum and where I will be in conversation with my dear friend Tomasz Kitlinski in just two days… a chance to sit and talk with Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the scholar, the nimble mind who designed, oversaw, strategized, curated the core exhibition… which, as she points out, is told without foreshadowing or backshadowing, where we are asked to walk through a 1000 years of history, an exhibition worthy of debates, an exhibition that left me emotional and asking questions and remembering that moment years ago, when my friend Cheryl asked, startled, “Am I Polish?”

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To sit in the flat of the journalist Kostek Gebert, with his cat Kescia on my lap, purring… to feel at home in Warsaw. To walk Dobra at night, under the bridge where the tram clacks along, a mysterious night walker passing by, wearing  a coat with a fur collar….

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to wander the Warsaw flea market with Joanna and Wojtek, where discarded dolls speak from boxes of clutter, postcards of alpine flowers and soldiers from a war a century ago, tools that had a meaning in another age, that stretched a woman’s elegant shoes, a Ukrainian ceramic of a fish with a wide-open mouth, bent-wood chairs, 60’s jazz playing on an old turntable, a yellow china teapot my grandmother might have used to brew her dark tea, which she’d drink through a sugar cube, held in her mouth.

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Between Nothing and Infinity: Poland’s Evolving Jewish Remembrance

Posted in Beacon Press, Crooked Mirror, Family History, Poland, reconciliation with tags , , , , on November 5, 2014 by Louise Steinman

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I remember the confusion I felt when I visited my family’s town, Radomsko, on my first trip to Poland in the fall of 2000. What was I looking for? I had no idea. I didn’t know anybody there. My relationship to the town, where my mother’s family had lived for over a hundred years, had been obscured by time, emigration, and trauma.

In the Radomsko Regional Museum, located in the lovely historic town hall, I accompanied a guide past collections of pottery shards from archeological digs, displays of nineteenth-century butter churns, exhibits of roof thatching and farm implements.

There were photos of Radomsko citizens deported to Siberia under Russian rule, infantry helmets from the First World War, and gruesome pictures of Polish partisans from the town, standing in front of pits before their execution by German soldiers. Where was any mention of the town’s Jewish citizens, nearly 55% of the town before World War II, almost all of whom perished under the German occupation?

Our guide finally paused in front of a glass case which contained artifacts from the Jewish community of Radomsko: a set of tefillin like my grandfather Louis wore; a pair of silver Kiddush cups; silver candlesticks; and two small oil paintings by a noted local painter. The paintings evoked the ambience of the town’s prewar Jewish life: well-worn wooden benches in an intimate little prayer house; a water carrier lugging his bucket up a crooked staircase. But I was disappointed. Just one glass case?

A few years later, in Warsaw, I mentioned this lonely glass case to a friend, Kostek Gebert, a prominent Polish journalist and a member of Warsaw’s Jewish community.

“Believe me,” he said, “ten years ago there was nothing in Radomsko. What you saw was not just ‘a little glass case.’” He paused.

“Please. You must understand, there’s infinity between nothing and a little glass case.”

CONTINUE READING on the Beacon Broadside]

MACIEJ and IDA

Posted in Art and Culture, Beacon Press, Crooked Mirror, Family History, Human Rights, Life and What about It, Literature, Poland, reconciliation, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on June 4, 2014 by Louise Steinman

Maciej and Lulu

My dear friend Maciej Ziembinski, a pioneering journalist and editor (and a central figure in my book, The Crooked Mirror), recently passed away in Radomsko, in central Poland. Maciej was fiercely devoted to this little town, where my mother’s family lived for generations. When poet Adam Zagajewski wrote of those Poles imbued with “the ecstasy of the provinces,” he must have had Maciej in mind.

Before World War II, Jews made up approximately 40% of Radomsko’s population. Very few survived the war and most who did survive left the country. Under Communist rule, there was but one sanctioned narrative of the recent past— the patriotic war against the German Fascists. Discussion of the town’s vanished Jews, of local rescuers or those who betrayed—was taboo. Maciej’s father, who’d rescued a Jewish woman to whom he’d been secretly engaged, raised his son to have an open mind. Even as a young man, Maciej was determined that the history of Radomsko’s Jewish population must be told, too. He understood it was an essential part of the town’s story.

He carried on, he told me, “his own private war with town hall.” When Poland transitioned to democratic rule, he established Radomko’s first alternative weekly. Until then, newspapers were the mouthpiece of the state. He named his paper, most appropriately, Komu I czemi (For whom and what for?). As its editor, he wrote and published over sixty articles about Radomsko’s Jewish history. He oversaw the translation of the Radomsko Yizkor, the Jewish memorial book, from Yiddish to Polish and published it in his paper. He was a principled man. A scrapper, a gadfly.

Pawel Pawlikowski’s exquisite recent film “Ida,” set in b&w provincial Poland in the early sixties– gives you some idea what obstacles Maciej faced under Stalinist rule. (In an interview, Pawlikowski calls his film, “a crooked mirror… so whoever looks can take away different things.”) The film’s young protagonist is a wide-eyed novitiate, an orphan, living an austere life at a convent in the countryside. With her downcast eyes, this young woman is the model of obedience and humility. There is no indication she’s made any inquiries about her origins. Soon she’ll take her final vows. Before she does, however, her Mother Superior orders her to visit her aunt, who’s suddenly requested to see her.

It’s the first time this naïve young woman learns she has living relatives. Within moments of her arrival at her aunt’s flat in Lodz, there is more surprising news. Her dead parents were Jews. Her real name is Ida Lebenstejn. “You’re a Jewish nun,” her aunt informs her with a harsh laugh. Ida’s swift response: “I want to see their graves.” Another hard truth: there are no graves. Most likely her family’s bones are in a pit in the forest.

In Poland, there are hundreds, thousands of adults with stories like that of young Ida in Pawlikowski’s film. They were Jewish children whose frantic parents, during the Occupation, entrusted their precious sons and daughters to Catholic neighbors or clergy. Several of those crooked stories are in my book—one of them is about a survivor named Ania Poniemunska, born in Radomsko in 1937.

In 1941, before they fled to Russia, Ania’s parents left their four year-old daughter in the capable hands of her maternal grandmother, a local midwife. The grandmother escaped the ghetto with Ania, and found shelter with a Polish farmer and his wife. The headman of the village betrayed them. The Germans dispatched the Polish farmer to Auschwitz. They surrounded the village, rounded up all the hidden Jews, marched them to the forest, forced them to dig their own graves. Before she was shot, however, the grandmother handed young Ania into the arms of a farmer’s wife who pretended the child was her own. Of the twenty-three Jews hidden in the village, only Ania survived.

In 2009, when Ania came back to Radomsko with her son for the first time since she’d emigrated to Israel after the war, she was in great conflict. Could she bear to visit the site where her beloved grandmother was murdered? Ania quickly found her way to Maciej; after all, he knew more about the Jewish history of the area than anyone else around.

In Pawlikowski’s film, Ida and her aunt elect to go into the forest, to the place where the unspeakable happened. Ida points to the open pit and asks the man unearthing her family’s remains: “Why am I not here? Why did I survive… not the others?” She needs to know. Maciej advised Ania: “Go to the forest. It is important to your son. It is the big story of your life. It made you who you are.” Maciej understood that. Ania, like Ida, was strong enough to bear the truth. She needed to bear witness.
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[drawing of Ania Poniemunska with her grandmother Chava Borys, by Kasia Kabzinka]

Over the years, Maciej and I spent many afternoons in the Radomsko cemetery—in sun and snow—walking unruly rows of tilting stones. Maciej, between puffs of a harsh Polish cigarette, would tell me stories of the more recent burials– about the few Jews who survived the war and stayed. Over there, he’d say, “that’s the grave of my friend Borkowski; he had an affair with the wife of his friend Andomierski; but they all wanted to be buried near each other anyway.” Maciej was like the narrator in Our Town.

Maciej helped me find the grave of my great-grandmother, Golda Zylberman Wajskopf. That afternoon in the melancholy Radomsko cemetery was magical. Blue butterflies fluttered through yellow gorse. Golda was luckier than most of her relatives—she died fourteen years before the Nazis invaded Radomsko and turned life for all its inhabitants into hell on earth.

“Saviors of Atlantis” is how a Polish friend refers to those non-Jewish Poles who gathered up the shards of Jewish life and history in a post-war Poland, then a broken country living under the strangle-hold of Communism.

Maciej was one of those saviors. He was also a gifted storyteller, a great friend, a good—if sometimes troublesome– man to have in your town. I am among many who will miss him.
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Radomsko cemetery, painting by Natan Spigel, courtesy Natan Spigel Foundation

Photo of Maciej and LS in Radomsko cemetery by Tomasz Cebulski

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